Monday, April 7, 2014

Giving LCS Critics What They Want

USS Freedom and USS Independence underway in company

In late March there were two war games/experiments with focus on the littoral combatant ship (LCS). One held by the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) focused on the littoral/green water potential of the ship while the event held at the Naval War College (NWC) examined the potential for LCS to serve in a variety of missions and environments, including blue water employment in company with battle group units. Sadly, but not surprisingly, critics of the LCS immediately pounced on the news reports coming from the Newport game that suggested LCS was potentially effective in a variety of roles. No one would argue that the LCS program has been plagued by management problems, an operational vision restricted perhaps to mission module capabilities, and a less than effective public affairs program over much of its history. Critics however need to take a step back and give current Surface Warfare leaders the chance to experiment and figure out what are the strengths and weaknesses of the LCS class. LCS has matured from concept to physical form in a much more visible and hostile environment than past surface warship designs. A shrinking defense budget complicates the future of LCS, as well as that of a proposed follow-on frigate FF(X). Many of the concerns advanced by LCS critics regarding a lack of operational concept evaluation are being addressed in war games and events such as those held at NWC and NPS. Give the Navy the space to fix them and ensure LCS realizes its full potential as an active component of the fleet. 
                                                     A Harsh Program and Budgetary Environment
The LCS program inhabits a much more reactionary and harsh program management world than past large Navy shipbuilding efforts. The DD-963 (Spruance) class, the CG-47 (Ticonderoga) class and the FFG-7 (Perry) classes all came to fruition in a much more closed and benign world of professional shipbuilding analysis. News of warship program faults was limited to a few specific trade journals and the odd article in the Naval Institute Proceedings or the Naval War College Review. Now nearly anyone with an opinion, whether informed by actual facts or mere speculation can get into the game of warship analysis via the internet. The aforementioned ship classes all had significant “bugs” to work out in the course of their introduction to the fleet. The Spruance’s lack of armament, faults with the AEGIS combat system and ship stability in the Ticonderoga’s, and the complaints about the SQS-56 sonar and sparse manning on the Perry’s all received significant attention from critics. The relative pace of this attention however was slower and easier for the Navy to manage than perhaps it is in the present.Current Defense budgetary considerations also do not offer LCS a safe harbor. The LCS program has already been reduced from 52 to 32 vessels and while a new frigate (FFX) design has been requested by the Department of Defense, no such ship has been authorized. FF(X) could quickly join the nuclear strike cruiser, the sea control ship, the CG 21 and a host of other never-built ships in the naval architect’s rubbish bin if the Defense budget continues to shrink. For this consideration alone the Navy must do its utmost to make the LCS a valuable addition to the fleet. “A bird inthe hand” is indeed “worth two in the bush” in the case of actual fleet inventory of ships.
Two Events: Two Concepts
War gaming and analysis are vital to the continued development of the LCS operational concept. This is especially true in a period of transition such as that which confronts the U.S. surface fleet at the present. The LCS concept was originally developed during a period of assumed U.S. naval superiority throughout most of the world’s maritime spaces. As the “low end” component of the SC 21 “family of ships”, LCS was not tasked with gaining sea control in a disputed region, but rather the “mopping up” operations against small craft, mines, and coastal submarines in the wake of larger and more capable combatants. LCS can no longer be confined to such limited roles in the present. Diminished fleet strength means that every surface ship must be flexible and capable of multiple missions in both the littoral and blue water environments.

     The Newport war game event evaluated the ability of LCS to support those new missions. The participants were given the latitude to pursue multiple employment options. They found LCS to be useful in blue and green water antisubmarine warfare, potential surface strike missions if given an improved antiship cruise missile (ASCM), and as an substitute for the guided missile destroyer (DDG) in low-threat operations like escort and counter piracy. The NPS workshop on the other hand was more focused on keeping LCS in the littoral and employing it as a network-dependent flotilla combatant. LCS would remain focused on the capabilities inherent in the mission module installed and would be operated more like an aircraft than a surface warship.
     This author is a known opponent of the flotilla combatant concept and would rather see LCS be evaluated for as many green and blue water missions as possible. LCS is approximately the same size as the World War Two destroyers that made their mark in both high seas and littoral combat. That said, the experimentation and evaluation of LCS as exemplified by the NWC and NPS is exactly what critics of the LCS program have demanded. Rather than focus on the “transformative” elements of the LCS’ design, its minimum manning, or its real or perceived equipment problems, both events emphasized real operational uses for the ship. A comparison of final results from these two prestigious naval education institutions will likely contribute to a continued healthy debate on what missions and responsibilities the LCS platform will assume now and twenty five years hence. LCS critics would be well advised to perhaps pause and give the Navy a chance to work out the ship’s operational best uses. Mistakes from the past have been acknowledged, but it does little good to revisit them again and again, especially in the light of war game events like these. Be happy for a change; this is what you asked the Navy to do.
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